Where Do You Draw the Line Between Good Sportsmanship and Bad Behavior?

Ethical Standards Hard to Define in a Relationship Business

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This story illustrates how naïve I was when I started the agency. We had just won our first agency of record account for a company that made hospital monitors. Six months into the relationship, I learned that another local agency had developed some spec creative and had sent the work to our client in a bid to win the business. I'm still shocked by what I did next. I called up the president of the agency and politely asked him to keep his grubby paws off our clients. I'm pretty sure he was speechless. Back then I believed that what he had done was unethical and that agencies should politely stay away from each other's clients. Of course, now I understand that if my mother owned an advertising agency, she would probably make a direct run at my client base.

Several years later, we worked for a marketing VP, who proved himself to be fiercely loyal, and is still a good friend of the agency. However, he had one unsettling habit. Whenever we got together for lunch, he would bring all the letters and portfolios that he received from other agencies. He would dismiss their efforts and proclaim his undying loyalty to us, but there was a subtext that wasn't lost on me. Never take the business for granted -- there are always plenty of agencies ready to step up. Whether or not you see the competition, and are willing to acknowledge they exist, they are hard at work, even as we speak.

These experiences have always raised the question of whether there are any ethical standards, or even business etiquette, that guide how we approach new clients. Never mind holding on to the ones we have. What's good sportsmanship and what constitutes bad behavior? Is all fair in love and business, is it OK to date your best friend's girlfriend -- or are there some lines that we shouldn't cross? These questions don't just apply to how we go after clients, but also how we recruit talent.

I still remember the anger rising up in me when I learned that another agency had called one of our employees at work and offered him a job. Then there was the awkward moment when a writer who worked for a friend's agency called me to inquire about coming to work with us. I didn't quite know where to place my loyalties.

It's easy to be Machiavellian and do whatever it takes to win a client, or get the talent you want, even if you have to bury a few bodies in the process. For me it's not that simple. This is a relationship business and our success depends on a web of human interconnections. A take no prisoner policy may win in the short-term but prove to be stupid over time. In a business where employees become clients and competitors become partners, not to mention friends, I like to take a kinder view -- but not too kind.

Face it, the nature of business is to compete and the tendency towards piracy is not confined to the high seas. But a sense of fairness and decency come into play, especially where relationships are at stake. Let's take fellow Ad Age blogger Marc Brownstein, president of the Brownstein Group, as an example. Marc is a friend of mine, but he's also a competitor. While he's in Philadelphia and we're in Boston, we occasionally play in the each other's backyard. We both have large digital practices. We also share some category expertise in technology. You can imagine a number of situations where we might step on each other's toes. Given that potential, here are some of the guidelines that I would apply in the following hypothetical situations.

Situation one. I discover that Marc has a client and my new business guy wants to pursue them. The answer is no. The reason: Marc is a friend and he's got enough people nipping at his heels without me jumping in on the action. The prospect of one new client doesn't outweigh the respect for a friend.

Situation two. Through the grapevine, I hear that one of Marc's clients is conducting an agency review and we think that we would be a good fit. Before throwing our hat in the ring, I would call Marc and let him know our intentions. Since the client has opened the door, it seems fair.

Situation three. We're looking for a digital producer, and I know that Marc has someone on staff that 's perfect for the job. I would not actively recruit him, although I might spread the word through my network and see who showed some interest.

Situation four. Marc's digital producer called me and said that he wanted to make a move and was interested in interviewing with us. Before I agreed to an interview, I would ask that the producer talk to Marc to avoid any rude surprises.

I'm sure you can think of a dozen other situations colored by shades of grey. The deciding factor for me is to always protect relationships that I value. I don't have any expectation that other people will play by my rules, and that 's OK. There's a time to be nice and a time to mix it up a little. I've definitely toughened up since my first encounter with that agency that went after our client. Over the years, we competed with them several times, and I took a little extra pleasure when we won. And maybe it's just a coincidence that a couple of their top people ended up at our place.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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